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Two-Year Degrees - Is That The Ideal Length Of A Bachelor's Course?

06/03/2017 13:12 GMT | Updated 06/03/2017 13:12 GMT
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Views differ on what the length of a bachelor's degree should be: for example, it is four years in Scotland, but three years in England.

The Americans, along with a large section of the world, have decided on four years (albeit starting at a younger age); the 'Bologna' process which seeks to harmonise the European higher education system typically assumes three years for the first cycle.

Now the UK government is also suggesting two year bachelor programmes (three years in Scotland) within state funded institutions. These 'fast track' programmes are already quite common in the private sector. Good idea?

The discussion is not just about the number of years, but also the number of teaching weeks per year and the number of teaching hours per week. Many UK universities teach 32 weeks a year, leaving the other 20 for assessments, writing dissertations, and of course holidays.

Older universities like Oxford and Cambridge typically teach three terms of eight weeks, so 24 weeks a year. Historically, education has had a long summer break, mainly because children had to help with the harvest and the journey home used to be time consuming.

Though few nowadays go home to help in the fields, this tradition is treated with considerable respect - especially at universities. It is easy to argue that times have moved on and that education is long overdue to catch up with the industrialised reality.

In a place like Singapore, there are many more teaching weeks in the year; perhaps because there are no seasons, but more likely because of a very different attitude towards the importance of education. The week also has many more teaching hours than the UK (8-12 hours per week). In a competitive world, can we in the UK still afford such a relaxed attitude?

The issue here is not the answer; the problem is the question. Quite simply, there is no such thing as an ideal length for a degree programme. We should consider what the students want and need, rather than the perspective of the degree programme.

We all learn in different ways. In our knowledge-based economy we (rightly) are more and more inclined to study at different stages of life with different objectives. Contrary to past practice, it is not the students who should adjust to the programmes, but vice versa: different types of programmes should serve different needs.

Long, broad, and low intensity degree programmes have a clear function: they help young people to acquire knowledge and skills as well as develop their personalities. This relatively slow approach tends to lead to more senior, more rewarding, better paid positions (albeit with a delay factor).

Short, professionally focused, and intense degree programmes are likely to provide more immediate employability. They are also economically appealing in the short term.

At the German business school of which I am also rector - GISMA Business School - we used to offer students the choice between a 12 month and an 18 month full time MBA. Interestingly, almost all international students opted for the longer version, which included German language and work experience with local companies.

As Germany is keen for high-flying international students to stay after they have completed their degree, and graduates of an AMBA-accredited programme fall into this category, the students understood the importance of studying for longer to be better prepared for employment.

For some students, especially those seeking not just graduation but also professional qualifications, a much longer study track can be a better choice. Studying whilst working means entering the labour market much faster whilst avoiding study debts.

At my previous university, most accountancy students would enter employment straight after secondary school, with the employer committing itself to funding part-time study. Typically, these student-employees would take seven to eight years to obtain their qualifications, and would then need to continue studying for the remainder of their working life to retain the right to practise. This slow track of work-integrated learning shifting into learning-integrated work is extremely sensible, especially in demanding professions.

So, longer degrees can be a smarter investment than shorter ones - but for other students, entering or re-entering the labour market as fast as possible may make much more sense.

A fast track degree is not better or worse than a traditional degree programme or a work integrated programme: they all serve a purpose.

Some might say it is about horses for courses, but in education, it really should be about courses for horses. The ideal length of a degree course is about what you need it to be, not what the university or others feel it should be.

The issue is not what length or type of programme is better; the real issue is that the choice reflects the needs of the students and of society in general.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is Rector of London School of Business and Finance (LSBF) and Chief Academic Officer of Global University Systems (GUS).